19 Aug 2014
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Bettencourt Brings on New Legal Team, Fills Chief Aide Post

Mayor Ted Bettencourt has hired a new city solicitor and is asking the City Council to approve hiring a new assistant solicitor while also filling the Chief of Staff post.

Bettencourt Brings on New Legal Team, Fills Chief Aide Post Bettencourt Brings on New Legal Team, Fills Chief Aide Post

One of the first things Mayor Ted Bettencourt did after taking office last week was bring some new key hires into his administration.

Bettencourt has appointed fellow Peabody attorney Michael Smerczynski to take over the city’s legal representation in a move he explains as being about having people he knows, works well with and trusts. Smerczynski, 51, a former partner of Bettencourt’s at , will replace John Christopher as the City Solicitor.

Bettencourt has also recommended Donald Conn, the other partner of the downtown firm, take over Assistant Solicitor Dan Cocuzzo’s duties on union negotiations and school issues. Conn’s appointment has to go before the City Council, which will happen Thursday. Assistant Solicitor Brian Barrett will stay on, Bettencourt said.

Smerczynski will be paid $102,000 and intends to leave his private practice to work full-time for the city, although he's not required to. For the time being, Smerczynski will keep his office on Main Street, but Bettencourt said he may seek to give him an office at or elsewhere in the future.

Conn has expressed similar intent in regards to focusing most of his attention now on the city’s affairs, although he will remain at the law firm and his new job will pay $80,000. He will effectively be a part-time employee for the foreseeable future.

Bettencourt pointed out that the job requires handling union negotiations, labor issues and school matters, which often require immediate response.

The third higher profile position, which Bettencourt indicated he would be filling months ago, was a chief of staff in Peabody native Christopher Ryder. Former Mayor Michael Bonfanti left the job vacant after Sean Fitzgerald left in 2008 to become a town manager in Plaistow, N.H.

Ryder, 39, comes over to City Hall from Beacon Hill, where he worked since 2004 as a legislative aide for a few different state representatives.

Prior to the Statehouse, Ryder worked as a federal grant consultant, in marketing and sales and even as a reporter for a short stint at a local weekly paper. He graduated from Northeastern University. Since 2006, he has co-hosted the political show “You Make the Call” on Peabody Access with Dick Jarvis.

“Chris was my guy early on,” Bettencourt said, adding he’s known Ryder for years and wanted a person in that job who was “committed to the city,” has a history in Peabody and can bring some different perspective to his office.

“Chris’ relationships with state officials will be helpful,” Bettencourt said, on both local and broader state issues. He added that he expects Ryder’s experience will complement his own legislative experience locally on the council.

Ryder will be paid $57,200 in his new post.

Bettencourt said he also hired a new electrical inspector and secretary for his office.

He said the two veteran attorneys bring a wealth of experience in government, law and a good knowledge of Peabody to their new jobs. He also knew during the election that he'd like them to come on board.

Smerczynski, a Peabody native now living in Topsfield, has served on various city boards in the past, worked in the district attorney’s office and provided general legal counsel for the and Northeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council (NEMLEC). He graduated from St. John’s Prep, went on to Harvard and then Suffolk University for his law degree.

Conn, a Melrose native, has served as an alderman (the equivalent of a city councilor) in that city as well as its chief legal representative for five years. He also graduated from St. John’s Prep and went on to Tuft’s University and then Boston College Law School.

Bettencourt said last week that the staffing changes should not be viewed as a reflection on the work those employees did for the city, particularly Christopher, who Bettencourt interacted with the most as a city councilor. Christopher spent a number of years with the city as an assistant solicitor before Larry O’Keefe retired in 2007 and Christopher was tapped to lead the Legal Department.

“I think John did [his] job well. It’s not a judgment upon him,” Bettencourt said; rather, it’s about continuing to work with someone you know well, trust and respect. And that applies to both men, who are law partners at their Smerczynski & Conn at which Bettencourt also used to be a partner until stepping away to run for Mayor.

Bettencourt said he has developed a relationship of trust with both men over the past 12 years, which is important for a mayor to have with the city’s attorneys, and he’s known Smerczynski personally for longer than that.

As for Cocuzzo, Bettencourt said, the changeup has nothing to do with the wrangling that went on between the City Council and Bonfanti over Cocuzzo’s full-time status and employment contract since he was hired in 2007. Previously the job had been part-time without a contract, although the level of pay was comparable.

Bettencourt said those arguments were mainly about the contract and not Cocuzzo’s job performance. “There’s no contract here,” he said with a laugh, referring to Conn’s appointment.

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